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If Life Gives You Rocks, Make a Rock Wall

typical sunset as seen from house

Typical sunset as seen from the house

Montserrat has been called the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” (E.I.C.) and claims a long relationship with Ireland. European settlement began with Irish Catholics that were booted off the neighboring island of Saint Kitts during one of the flare ups between the Protestants and the Catholics in England and Her Colonies.  Others came from the American Colonies or were deported from Ireland itself.  It is said in pretty much anything you read about Montserrat that “you can still hear a bit of an Irish Brogue” amongst the native Montserratians. Perhaps those writers have more acute hearing than I, or, more likely, they have never actually been here.

The E.I.C. took a major hit 20 years ago when a volcano formed and laid waste to much of the small island, including Plymouth, the capital, and the airport, the two areas of the island which were relatively flat, having been built on the outwash from earlier eruptions of other volcanoes in the distant past.  (Similar to Seattle and Mount Rainier; West Coast Washingtonians take note.)  For the last five years, the volcano has been relatively quiet, giving everyone the hope that it will just sort of go to sleep for ten thousand years. The current population is under 5,000, and to me it’s like a small town spread over a large area.  (One gas station for the entire island, for example.)

The home my brother and I bought on Montserrat last year is on a one acre lot in an area called Old Towne. The main effect of the volcano on this property (before we purchased it) was the deposition of a lot of volcanic ash, which is very fine, like plaster dust, when it is dry.  At the time it was falling, it was literally plowed from the streets and carted away from the houses, like snow that doesn’t melt; so there are mounds of it around, and it forms the top layer of soil in much of the lower yard—easy to dig in till you hit the original soil, which is very rocky.  Unless someone is doing some clearing, like say, digging a foundation for a home, the ash pretty much stays put.

ash dust
Ash Dust

I can now truly say that I know my ash from a hole in the ground.  The ash doesn’t hold water very well; (in fact it is somewhat water repellant) and IF my little soil test kit is correct, it’s high in phosphorus, totally lacking in nitrogen, has some potassium, and is close to neutral in acidity. (Which is odd since it is acidic when it first falls.)  I have a new pH meter to take along on the next visit to try to figure out this soil acidity thing.  I suspect it is also pretty low in microbial life, so compost would help if incorporated into the ash when planting.  There isn’t much compost on the property; what looked like compost piles are turning out to mostly be ash with a light layer of leaves on top.

I took a container of Jack’s Best Fertilizer (20-20-20) with me this last trip, and was gratified to see that it turned the leaves of my areca palm to green from yellow, and they were kicking out some new fronds.  In Maryland I generally use Plant-tone around the yard, but it’s not something that I can take with me in my suitcase—too heavy, among other things.  Over the years I have found that the Jack’s products are great on houseplants and have really given a boost to my love-starved tropicals on Montserrat.

I checked out the Farmer’s Co-op, and found that they have bales of potting soil available, and coir (coconut fiber), so I may have to use some of that when I plant, just to improve the water holding capacity of the soil.  I am going to join the Co-op for supplies and local advice. (After just one visit, I now know how to tell if mole crickets are eating my lawn, how to keep a neem tree stump from resprouting, and that those holes in the ground may be harboring big land crabs.)

In the DC area we have clay soils in the Piedmont region to the west of I95, transitioning to the Coastal Plain to the east, which is sandy.  Your alternately gummy/hard-as- a-rock clay soil is just the opposite of ash. It holds a lot of water, often to the point of being waterlogged, and it holds nutrients very well.  Regardless of the soil, the same gardening rules apply when planting:

  • Make sure that the soil surrounding the roots of your plants is moist (that is, don’t plant a dry plant) into dry soil.
  • If the roots of the plant have grown to the edge of the pot and are circling, they must be loosened/broken up/teased apart. Otherwise they will continue to grow in a circle instead of out into the new soil, and the plant will dry up.
  • Water the plant thoroughly after planting to moisten the soil and settle it so there aren’t big air pockets.
  • Check the water daily, and water if necessary, directing the water at the roots, not at the foliage. If you water, water thoroughly and remember that most of the roots are still in the soil that the plant came in.  That is where your water should be directed.
  • Be prepared for herbivores.
island sheep
Island Sheep

Speaking of herbivores: my pen pals, the roaming sheep and goats of my little Serengeti, have temporarily won, and we have not done much planting this trip.  The continuing drought at what is supposed to be the beginning of the rainy season also gave us pause, since our visits to the Island are limited by the need to return home to work.  (“He who plants and runs away, lives to plant another day.”  Usually the same plants in the same place when it’s this dry.)

Because of the drought, and perhaps, overdevelopment, many of the Caribbean islands are suffering severe water shortages.  With its mountains to tickle moisture out of the clouds, and its small population, Montserrat has enough water to keep a gardener happy, and good water at that. Our water comes from springs and is drinkable right from the tap (although my wife insists on glasses).

Reluctantly, we are having a five foot tall, green chain-link fence installed, which should remove the issues of feeding by the sheep and at least the less athletic goats (not to mention the occasional feral donkey or cow) while not inhibiting the movement of iguanas and agoutis.  The fence will probably also have little effect on the vast flocks of feral chickens, which, if they actually flew more, would blacken the sky like the passenger pigeons of yore. The final decision to build was made when the sheep found the three fishtail palms we had just planted.  You could hear the foliage ripping from 100 feet away, and my anguished cries of “no, not the palms, not the palms” probably were heard for miles around.

At the top of the drive we are having a 5 foot stone wall built to define the driveway, made out of all natural, locally-sourced volcanic boulders.  Rock is (not surprisingly) plentiful and cheap, and many places have stone walls, so there are skilled stone masons available.  It has been fun to watch the beginnings of the wall being built as we prepare to return Stateside.

Stone Wall Being Built
existing stone wall coverd in ash
Existing Stone Wall Coverd in Ash

My coworkers keep asking me if I’m having “fun.” The answer is yes.  There are many hiking opportunities and some excellent snorkeling sites.  But I liken this to Homeowner Summer Camp, only without the counselors.  I am learning about a lot of things I never cared about much before, like termites. And septic systems. (Question one: where exactly IS the septic field? No one knows, it’s out there somewhere, buried under the ash.)  On the other hand, growing tropical plants actually in the ground is fun.  We are learning as many native plants as we can as we go along, and trying to preserve them as much as possible (We have mahogany trees!).  We are also learning and fighting some of the invasive plants including the neem tree, coral vine, and Madagascar rubber vine).   Once the wall and fence are up and the sheep are gone, we can begin planting in earnest for beauty and privacy. And we are eager to grow some fruit.  I might have to spend a lot more time here, just to make sure things are watered correctly.

baby iguana
Baby Iguana
wild cacti and orchids
Wild Cacti and Orchids

by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist

Know anyone who would like to stay in this beautiful villa for a vacation? Here is a short description of the property….

Located on one acre in the Old Town section of Montserrat, this peaceful Montserrat villa holiday rental has an open concept living/dining room, den, full kitchen, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms.  A covered deck leads to a swimming pool.  There is cable TV and  wireless internet access.  Laundry facilities are located on the lower level. 

Find out more on Larry Hurley’s website: Montserrat Villa Holiday Rental. For more pictures and contact information you can visit Moonshadow Villa Holiday Rental on facebook.

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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